BLAME ENOUGH TO GO AROUND

     On Friday October 9, 2009 I awoke in Chicago to the news that President Barrack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Though he had only been in office nine months, so enamored was the Nobel committee with his diplomatic efforts to reintegrate the U.S. into the international community that they conferred the prize more to refute George W. Bush’s eight years of cowboy swagger than as a salute to any particular Obama achievement.

     The story buzzed through the Chicago Hilton that morning as we assembled for the 10:30 a.m. pre-race press conference for Sunday’s 32nd Bank of America Chicago Marathon.  Presiding over the presser was friend and British broadcaster Tim Hutchings, who would interview two panels of athletes on stage.  To his left sat the women, to his right the men.  The panel included 2008 Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya who would be making his much anticipated American racing debut that Sunday morning in Chicago.

2009 Chicago Press Conference

     As Tim was interviewing the athletes, I noticed that Wanjiru was sitting slumped in his chair in a posture of utter disinterest, paying no attention whatsoever to what anyone else was saying.  Some may have viewed it as relaxed, but I recall thinking at the time, “we’re building the sport around guys like this, and this is how he presents himself?  He’s not even trying to mask his feelings.”

     Later, after Sammy resurrected his appearance by quipping how he was “glad to see the place Obama is from”, I remarked to his manager, Federico Rosa, about his athlete’s postural attitude.

     “Did you see his body language?” I asked.  “He was essentially saying, ‘I could give two sh-ts about being here’.  He’s the Olympic champion, for heaven sakes. It’s not professional.”

     Federico just shrugged.

     “Maybe he is tired,” he offered.

                                                                                  Double-edged Sword

     That 2009 Chicago memory came to mind as I read Federico’s remarks in the wake of the great champion’s shocking death on Monday at his home in Kenya.  Federico had made mention of Sammy’s arrogance as an athlete, which red-flagged, for me, how that same arrogance which served Wanjiru so well in competition, whether in his Olympic victory in Beijing, or in both his Chicago wins in 2009 & 2010, betrayed him in his personal life as surely as the sadness which attends his untimely passing. 

     Yes, we are all arrogant and invincible at 21.  And the loss of a young man as vibrant as Sammy Wanjiru is tragic enough on its face.  But notwithstanding that World and Olympic 100 and 200 meter champion Usain Bolt has replaced NBA star LeBron James as the most marketable sportsman on the planet – according to SportsPro in its second annual ranking of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes – the overall well-being of distance running, and track and field in general, is less than robust.  News that the Millrose Games is pulling up stakes from New York’s Madison Square Garden after a century attests to that.  Now the premature death of a champion who had the potential to resurrect distance running,  just as Bolt has lifted sprinting, compounds the loss. 

                                                                                     No Rules, Just Wrong

     Yet it must be said that the total lack of rules and regulations in this sport, this laissez-faire system that requires nothing more than speed and tolerates indulgent, petulant behavior without consequence or penalty must, in some small measure, be added to the blame for this story’s tragic outcome.

     Don’t get me wrong, athletes in every other sport are just as, if not even more, petulant and pampered than runners.  They certainly get paid a hell of a lot more.  But there are also union by-laws, sponsor requirements, and contractual obligations in place to help protect and ameliorate the damage while bolstering the health and image of the sport.  If an athlete wants to act the fool in public while being paid vast sums, that’s fine.  But there are penalties for such behavior.  Miss a Super Bowl press conference?  You get fined.  Not so in running. 

     I remember one year at the Boston Marathon when defending women’s champion Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia didn’t even show up for the press conference where she was to be given her #1 race number!  Yet no one ever said to Fatuma Roba, “Show up!” or to Sammy Wanjiru,  “Sit up straight!  You carry a responsibility.  And if you don’t, just so you know, it will cost you one-third your fee. But you make the call.”

     There is a hard lesson inherent in our event fragmentation and lack of regulations.  For the last 20 years our sport has allowed an unending string of speedy, but unseasoned young men and women to migrate to our events without any semblance of a Roberts Rules of Order to regulate conduct or engage media training.  Run fast from point A to point B, we’ve said, that’s all you need to do.  Furthermore, the emphasis on times rather than on competition, rivalries or personality has broken the lead pack off from its historic fan base, the throngs running/jogging/walking in its wake.  And, of course, we have lost our outside audience altogether. 

     Now, with the passing of 24 year-old Sammy Wanjiru in a moment of – well, we don’t even know a moment of what, as yet – we have lost a singular, charismatic talent whose eventual maturity might’ve helped resurrect the flagging image of the sport.  Unfortunately, that assignment must now be left to another.  Though how many talents the likes of Wanjiru come around every generation? 

     Certainly, in the last analysis we are all masters of our own fate, as the untimely deaths of other young stars like Steve Prefontaine and Len Bias remind us.  But the questions still linger. Will the sport of running, itself, have learned anything at all from this tragic loss?  Do we owe anything at all to future Sammy Wanjirus?

END

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8 thoughts on “BLAME ENOUGH TO GO AROUND

  1. Toni: Interesting post. I agree with Scott Brown’s comment about Sammy misunderstanding the casual attitude of Americans. Everyone deals with stress in different ways, some athletes try not to show that they’re pumped and ready to run by being reticent, saying little, sitting up ramrod straight at the press conference, not wanting to give anything away. Others may choose however to be casual about it all, a “what? me worry?” attitude to belie their nervousness. I don’t think that Sammy should be faulted for his behavior; we’ve all seen the same body language on American athletes as well. At the half-marathon championships in Houston in January Ryan Hall spent most of the press conference sprawled out on his chair. After the press conference was over I overhead one of the race officials (who shall remain nameless since I was standing nearby listening in on the conversation) complaining to a well-known figure in the sport, that some of the sponsors thought that Ryan was being disrespectful. The race official was told to “tell Ryan to shape up, tell him what you expect, he’ll do it.” Yes, we can ask (and expect) our athletes to behave as professionals, but I believe we also have to take into account individual personalities. Sammy’s finishes in Beijing and Chicago will be remembered long after his slouching at a press conference is forgotten. (And when I watched Ryan cross the finish line in Boston this year, my brain didn’t superimpose a vision of his Houston pre-race press conference over that incredible sight.)

  2. Thank you, Scott, for your perspective. It would make more understandable the seemiing nonchalance Sammy displayed in Chicago that day at the press conference. He sure displayed nothing of the kind during the 2009 or 2010 races themselves. I will always cherish the memory and be thankful for the opportunity I had to be so close to such a wonderful athlete in full flower. He will long be remembered and missed.

    • Although my video shows Sammy perking up when Tim was chatting with him, he was practically sliding off his chair when the other athletes were being addressed (as Tony mentions above). You can see a few seconds of Sammy’s lackadaisical posture at the beginning of the clip. In any case, the world has lost a marathoner with the potential for greatness and I am saddened.

  3. Thanks for writing this Toni and your subsequent article on Sammy, it was the best I’ve read on the subject. While I like what you said here and agree I’d like to give some views on why, I think, Sammy was being so laid back in that press conference.

    I taught at a sports school here in Japan for over five years, one like Sammy went to in Sendai Japan, and I can guarantee he wasn’t slouching or not paying attention at official events there! Kids at these schools are legendary for their adherence to discipline.

    What I think you were seeing with Sammy was that he was misunderstanding the casualness of America. My japaneses students will do it all the time when they are overseas thinking that everyone is like Bruce Willis they try to relax on purpose, it is in fact a type of respect in that they are trying to blend.

    Of course when they are made aware that Western countries and people also have levels of politeness depending on the social situation then they will act accordingly.

    I’m aware there are probably many factors involved here and take your general point but I think a lot of this wouldn’t have happened if his coach had prepared him better.

    Yes, anyway, blame to go around for sure. We all need to help our young athletes more!

    Thanks again Toni. Love your work!

  4. Wejo,

    Sammy did become engaged when Tim was talking directly to him. It was just when any of the others were being addressed that he went limp. And I certainly agree that we need to spell out spefic responsibilities for our athletes. This shouldn’t be left to each race separately, either. We’ve talked about the need for the sport to mature in a professional manner for years. We owe as much to ourselves, our sponsors, and our athletes/managers. But as long as every race remains an island unto itself…

    • Toni,
      I’m a bit surprised Frederico didn’t care more about his posture. Ultimately you would think it would be in Frederico’s financial interest to make Sammy as marketable as possible. Slouching at a press conference doesn’t help.

      The races should say, “For your appearance fee you will do x, y, and z” and that includes showing up at the press conference and sitting up straight. And also you’re going to spend 30 minutes with our PR consultant beforehand. If they athletes don’t know what is expected from them then they might misbehave intentionally or unintentionally.

      The second it’s going to cost an agent some cash they’ll start caring.

      Although, I must say from watching this video: http://vimeo.com/7197624 it made Sammy seem engaging so maybe Frederico figured Sammy’s personality would carry the day.

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